Choosing a singing teacher

There are excellent teachers, good teachers, teachers who don’t really do any harm but don’t actually know enough to do a student much good, and teachers who actually mislead because they don’t know what they are doing. How can we find a good teacher? A good teacher should demonstrate certain knowledge, skills and personal traits, and be able to answer a broad range of questions. These days, there is such good information about the science of voice anatomy and vocal acoustics, there is no excuse not to teach with what I would call ‘evidence based singing’. I also think a singing teacher must be a good musician, have a good feel for language, be a versatile and artistic performer, be a good ‘explainer’, and be creative and adaptable. Here are some more criteria to consider:

1. Knowledgeable about vocal anatomy
  • Which parts of the body are relevant to the voice?
  • What is their function?
  • How do they influence the ease of making sound and changing pitch and timbre?
2. Knowledgeable about acoustics as it relates to voice
  • What is pitch, and how does the voice produce different pitches?
  • What role do harmonics play in vocal sound? What influences the intensity of particular harmonics in vocal sound?
  • What factors affect the listener’s perception of the volume of a singer’s voice?
3. Knowledgeable about a wide range of technical exercises
  • What is needed to make the muscles coordinate efficiently and economically for making healthy vocal sound?
  • What various mechanical set-ups are needed to make the sounds typical of different musical styles (e.g. opera, folk, crooning, jazz, rock, music theatre, belt)?
  • Can the teacher offer more than one exercise for a given technical issue, ie. more than one way to resolve a problem or learn the necessary technique?
  • Can the teacher give an excellent demonstration of every technique s/he suggests to you?
  • Does the teacher help you design appropriate practice routines, and teach you how to practise?
4. Able to demonstrate a high level of musicianship
  • Can the teacher sing with a different timbre – adjusting laryngeal set-up and resonance – to suit different musical genres (see 3)?
  • Are the teacher’s intonation, sense of rhythm and musical phrasing excellent?
  • Can the teacher sight-read music well?
  • Can the teacher fluently use the conventional terminology of music theory?
  • Can the teacher write out music confidently and quickly?
  • Can the teacher analyse a piece of music, and explain it clearly (rhythm, melody, harmonies, musical texture and instrumentation, form/structure, dynamics, articulation, time signatures, key signatures, modulation, cadences etc)?
  • Can the teacher listen to a performance or recording and systematically, analytically describe what is happening in the music, what the performers are doing, what is working or not working, and why?
  • Can the teacher play an instrument (e.g. piano or guitar), as well as sing?
  • Does the teacher have solid experience as a performer? A good performer understands: what work is required to achieve performance standard; issues of memorisation; the psychology of the performance space; the work of interpretation; how to work well with other musicians.
  • Does the teacher perform/make music expressively and compellingly? Is the performance not just technically competent, but also artistically convincing and moving?
5. Able to work with lyrics / words effectively
  • When the teacher sings, can you hear all the words clearly?
  • Does the teacher’s performance show a good understanding of the intention in the words  – conveying an appreciation of the character singing, the mood of the individual words / lines / sections and overall content of the song, and the dramatic situation of the song?
  • Does the story ‘come alive’, so that you barely notice the teacher is singing?
  • Can the teacher analyse and explain the main different nuances within a lyric, and the dramatic / emotional / psychological function of its different elements?
  • Can the teacher help you with technical/vocal challenges when you have to add the words to the melody?
  • Can the teacher help you tell the story of the song?
  • Can the teacher help you gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between words and their musical setting – and what works or does not work in the music-lyrics combination for a particular song?
  • Can the teacher guide you technically how to create good tone and smooth music lines, with all vowel sounds, and with all consonants, comfortably across your full pitch range?
  • Can the teacher sing in different languages with an authentic accent?
  • Can the teacher teach you how to pronounce authentically and convincingly the language that the song is in?
6. Disciplined and flexible with repertoire (your choice of songs and styles)
  • Does the teacher ensure that you have a good technique, and that the two of you share vocabulary and an understanding of your voice before working on repertoire?
  • Is the teacher willing to help you on the repertoire you want to sing?
  • Does the teacher tell you when s/he thinks your song choice is beyond your current technical ability, and may risk your vocal health, or your success in performing it?
7. Able to diagnose vocal problems and suggest appropriate solutions
  • At a first meeting, is the teacher able to identify your vocal needs and challenges?
  • When you apply the teacher’s suggestions, do they work?
  • Can the teacher give you practical help on the psychology of: learning; freeing your body for optimal vocalising; and singing in front of others?
8. Able to communicate concepts and techniques very, very clearly
  • Is the teacher willing and able to answer every question you have about voice?
  • Is the teacher honest with you when s/he doesn’t know the answer?
  • Can the teacher offer more than one way of explaining or presenting an answer?
  • Does the teacher make the effort to understand and adapt to you, and how you think and learn best?
9. Willing and able to help you become independent
  • After even a short time with the teacher, do you feel that your understanding of vocal technique is increasing?
  • After some lessons with your teacher, do find yourself able to warm up more efficiently, sing for longer without tiredness or strain, sing a wider pitch range, use a wider range of dynamics (loud/soft), sing faster words and passages of music, sustain longer notes and phrases, and use a wider range of vocal ‘colours’?
  • Does the teacher give you ideas on how to monitor and measure yourself, so that, without needing feedback from a listener, you still know when you are doing things properly?
  • Are you becoming more able to answer your own vocal questions based on what you have learned with the teacher?
  • Do you find yourself needing less frequent lessons?
  • Does the teacher encourage you – and guide you how – to take charge of your learning?
10. Patient
  • Is the teacher willing to answer every question you ask, even when you ask the same question more than once?
  • Does the teacher welcome the question ‘why?’, so that you can keep asking it until you feel you have received the answer you need?
  • Is the teacher willing to revisit technical points as often as is necessary?
11. Ethical
  • Is the teacher polite?
  • Does the teacher treat you as an equal, socially, and as a 50% partner in the work?
  • Does the teacher talk down to you?
  • Is the teacher dictatorial?
  • Does the teacher take your questions and concerns seriously, or does s/he dismiss them?
  • Does the teacher devote the full lesson time to your needs as a student?
  • Does the teacher offer a clear working contract with you, and keep to it?
  • Does the teacher decline to teach you if s/he believes s/he is not able to help you?
12. Constantly learning
  • Does the teacher constantly try to advance his/her own knowledge of voice, music, performing, teaching and learning?
  • Is the teacher willing to hear your opinions, and learn from you?
  • Is the teacher willing to admit when s/he doesn’t have an answer?

Which criteria are the most important?

Given the 12 categories and many questions suggested here, where should a student start? Personally, I would want a teacher to meet every single one of the criteria. Realistically though, it may be hard to find a teacher who ticks all the boxes! Perhaps a way forward could be for the student to choose 5-10 ideas that are particularly important to them personally, and use those as criteria in their search for a singing teacher.

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